The Pursuit of Political Order

How different societies construct political order is one of the single most important questions in the study of politics and perhaps the most elemental.[1] What are the forces that propel societies to move from the “traditional state,” characterized by persistent violence and patrimoni- alism, to a “modern state,” defined by stable, effective, and legitimate government?[2] Political philosophers grappled with this basic inquiry as they articulated social contract theory. Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan still gives us the label by which we understand that some concentration of sovereign authority in the hands of an individual or group of individuals is necessary to achieve the transition away from the state of nature; even as the debate between Hobbes’s insistence on the necessity of authoritarian rule in that transition and John Locke’s rebuttal in favor of the merits of constitutionally constrained government continues to the present day.[3] The study of political order has a distinguished contemporary intellectual history, serving as the core subject matter upon which landmark theoretical works in the political science canon have been written.[4] It has also enjoyed a resurgence in the past decade, with much of the renewed interest in the subject coming from the economics discipline.[5] Yet the links between the search for modern political order and the putative goals of peacebuilding - despite their great similarity - have been made surprisingly rarely in the peacebuilding literature, albeit with some notable exceptions.[6]

A political order constitutes the underlying system by which a society organizes its political actions and behavior. Institutions - formal rules, policy structures, and norms - are the cornerstone of this political order and are central to understanding how it evolves over time. These institutions are the legacies of the concrete political struggles of the past and, in turn, provide the contours of the political arena of the present - shaping the incentives facing individuals and organizations, guiding the patterns in which they interact, and constraining their political behavior.[7] The process of defining a political order is thus best understood as the process of institutional development. It concerns the building of stable institutional arrangements that govern political behavior, including, especially, the rules and norms that give elites control over resources and social functions and constrain these elites from using violence. The process of ordering power, in other words, is in large part about how elites organize themselves - including, crucially, alliances among elite factions - to govern their subjects.[8] In turn, institutions and the public policies they create reflect, magnify, and perpetuate the distribution of political power, actively empowering some groups and individuals while marginalizing others from the political sphere.10 These institutional outcomes need not necessarily reflect any particular set of interests - they can be compromises between actors with different goals or even the unintended consequence of conflict - and this, especially, makes them open to change.[9]

The concept of “political order” is often discussed with a positive valence, connoting political stability and good governance - with its opposite, “political disorder” or “political decay,” seen as the undesirable outcome on the other end of the spectrum.[10] Here, I adapt this usage in part to conceptualize a political order as a set of political institutions and practices that rest in equilibrium. A political order is thus an institutional arrangement itself rather than a set of governance outcomes that are inherently desirable and the modifying adjective is crucial in telling us what kind of order we are talking about. In turn, there are three crucial elements by which a political order can be characterized: the control of violence through the rule of law; government effectiveness through state capacity; and mechanisms of legitimacy and accountability. The modern state is thus characterized by peaceful stability, state strength, and democratic accountability, or - to use the language of transformative peacebuilding - a stable and lasting peace, underpinned by effective and legitimate governance.

Conceived of in this way, political order can more usefully be seen as a characteristic of political systems that, as it varies in degree, also varies in kind. The governance challenge facing post-conflict countries is fruitfully viewed through this lens on political order. Fragile and conflict-affected countries are evidently in, or close to, the Hobbesian natural state of political instability, violence, and disorder. Indeed, state failure is commonly defined by the disintegration or absence of the main qualities of modern political order.[11] There are also, importantly, hybrid forms of political order distinct from both the natural and modern state. There are four crucial things to note about these hybrid or intermediate states of political order. First, most obviously, measures of the control of violence, of government effectiveness, and of democratic accountability are at intermediate levels. Countries with intermediate forms of political order are those with some political stability and some elements of effective and legitimate governance - but recognizably not, for example, what peacebuilding interventions are intended to achieve. Second, the three components vary independently, to a degree, such that different pathways to the modern state are entirely possible. This logic runs counter to modernization theory, where all good things go together, a point I expand on below. Third, the three elements are, nevertheless, mutually reinforcing, which means that the hybrid or intermediate state is an equilibrium just like the modern state, albeit a suboptimal one. Fourth, each of these components or characteristics of political order - indeed, the process of political development itself - are potentially reversible - they can improve or they can disintegrate.

What closes the “political gap,” as Samuel Huntington coined it, between underdeveloped and developed political systems?[12] What is the process by which a country succeeds in “getting to Denmark,” a land of peaceful stability, rule of law, effective government, and democratic accountability?[13] Max Weber gave us the bare bones of the answer in his very definition of the modern state: creating the leviathan requires endowing it with a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence. In practical terms, achieving a monopoly of violence for the state becomes a question of how to contain, in Robert Bates’s inimitable phrase, society’s “specialists in violence,” or rulers by might.[14] In traditional political orders, these elites retain the ability to mobilize violence in the service of their own particular interests and to their own benefit. Carles Boix notes that individuals can either exploit or cooperate to survive.[15] Getting to modern political order - rule-bound, effective, and legitimate governance - thus requires elites to agree to some binding of their power. Dan Slater frames this, in his study of developmental authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia, as the intrinsic challenge of elite collective action, asserting that “severe threats to elites’ property, privileges, and persons are a necessary condition” for elites

to give up some of their individual power to establish the leviathan.[16] Stable, effective, and legitimate governance materializes when elites recognize that their interests are best served by deploying their coercive powers not for predation but to invest in the institutions, policies, and public goods that instead enhance the productive use of society’s resources.

Why do elites - those with recourse to violence in the service of their own ends - form an agreement to restrict themselves? Elites bind themselves to cooperate in a coalition because their reward is access to the coalition’s spoils, through processes of rent creation and distribution. The political and economic foundations for development come together when those who are specialists in violence realize that their interests are best served by creating the environment for economic prosperity.[17] Once a government has accumulated enough hegemonic power to ensure its survival, thereby lengthening its own time horizon, it serves the interest of that government to make the territory as rich as possible so that it can extract as much as possible over multiple time periods. Mancur Olson famously referred to this type of hegemonic government as a “stationary bandit,” recognizing that societal stability is achieved at the cost of institutionalized extraction.[18] Restricting access to the privileges of the coalition only to its members gives them a stake in the coalition and makes their commitment to protecting it credible, leading Douglass North, John Wallis, and Barry Wein- gast to dub this type of regime a “limited access order.”[19] These elites secure political order by creating a monopoly on economic activity and, thereby perpetuating an extractive, instead of inclusive, political- economic equilibrium.[20] The form that the elite collective bargain takes, in turn, structures the nature of the state’s interactions with society.

  • [1] Margaret Levi, in her address as President of the American Political ScienceAssociation, noted that political science is “driven by a common desire tounderstand what makes for good governments and how to build them,”defining good governments as effective and accountable. Levi 2006: 5.
  • [2] Here, I use the term “modern” in its Weberian sense, which is normativeconcerning the qualities of political order, as opposed to meaning“contemporary.” This conventional usage means that “traditional” ornon-modern forms of political order can and do exist today.
  • [3] Hobbes 1968 [1651]; and Locke 1963 [1698].
  • [4] Bates 2001; Ertman 1997; Huntington 1968; Levi 1989; Skocpol 1979; andTilly 1990.
  • [5] Acemoglu and Robinson 2012; Boix 2015; and North, Wallis, and Weingast2009.
  • [6] These exceptions include Barnett 2006; Boege, Brown, and Clements 2009;Hamieri 2010; and Paris 2004.
  • [7] This definition of institutions follows the historical institutionalist perspectiveon institutions, for example in Pierson 1996; Pierson and Skocpol 2002; andThelen 1999. Thelen 1999 observes that historical institutionalism emphasizeshow institutions emerge from and are embedded in temporal processes, whilerational choice institutionalism views institutions more as coordinationmechanisms that generate equilibria; she also notes that this distinction,however, does not preclude much fruitful overlap and cross-fertilizationbetween the two approaches. The theoretical framework in this chapter doesindeed bring together both rational choice and historical institutionalistapproaches to political order.
  • [8] Slater 2010; also Waldner 1999. 10 Weir 1992.
  • [9] Mahoney and Thelen 2010: 8.
  • [10] For example, Fukuyama 2011, 2014a; and Huntington 1968.
  • [11] OECD 2008a; and Rotberg 2004.
  • [12] Huntington 1968: 2. 2 Pritchett and Woolcock 2002; also Fukuyama 2011.
  • [13] 16 Bates 2001, 2008a. 4 Boix 2015: 7.
  • [14] 18 Slater 2010: 13, italics in original. On the importance of threat as an impetus
  • [15] to elite collective action in the service of statebuilding, see also Bates 2001;
  • [16] Ertman 1997; and Waldner 1999.
  • [17] Bates 2001; also Boix 2015. 2 Olson 1993.
  • [18] 21 North, Wallis, and Weingast 2009. 4 Acemoglu and Robinson 2012.
  • [19] 23 North, Wallis, and Weingast 2009 calculate that about 85 percent of the
  • [20] world’s population in some 170 of the world’s countries live in various formsof neopatrimonial (or limited access) orders, compared to 15 percent in 25
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